Steven Soderbergh's "Kafka" isn't about Kafka the man or Kafka the writer. It's about Kafka the concept.
In fact, if you've never heard of Franz Kafka -- much less read word one of the Czech writer's limited but seminal output -- but you've been using the all-purpose adjective "Kafkaesque" to describe anything complex yet bizarre, then you'll love "Kafka" -- the movie, which opens today at the Charles.
Soderbergh's "gimmick," to use a crude word, is to put a Kafka-like character into a mystery-adventure in Prague in 1919 that will teach him exactly the lessons and the meanings of the word Kafkaesque. We see, from the process, how such a man might have gone on to write "The Trial," "The Hunger Artist," "The Castle" or "The Metamorphosis."
Kafka is played by the exquisitely neurotic Jeremy Irons, a dark butterfly of a man, so elegantly twitchy that you fear he'll implode on himself at any second. An insurance adjuster of no consequence (as was the real Kafka), he's slowly drawn into a conspiracy (as was the real Kafka . . . NOT) at a large building -- yes, a castle -- where mind-control experiments are being carried out by a nefarious government agency. (It doesn't seem to bother Soderbergh that at that time in history, Czechoslovakia had one of the few practicing democracies in Europe). Heroically, Kafka (Irons) manages to dismantle both the castle and the conspiracy, whereas of course the real Franz Kafka could barely manage to dismantle a light bulb.
The movie is shot in the wonderful black-and-white idiom of the German expressionist cinema that later became the foundation for both film noir and "Shadows and Fog." It's not nearly as serious as some people have taken it. In fact, it's really more a lark than albatross. Soderbergh, of course, became world-famous with "sex, lies and videotape." This is a mere finger exercise, amusing, deft, shallow. But it's good fun. It's not Kafkaesque so much as burlesque.
Starring Jeremy Irons.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.